The Sucking Sound at The Wall Street Journal

Wall_street_journalDavid Wes­sel, the deputy Wash­ing­ton bureau chief of The Wall Street Jour­nal, recent­ly gave a talk

at the Yale School of Man­age­ment, which he titled “Can News­pa­per Jour­nal­ism Sur­vive Blogs, Fox News and Karl Rove?” (Lis­ten here on iTunes.)  Speak­ing can­did­ly, Wes­sel read­i­ly acknowl­edged that the print news­pa­per busi­ness is in trou­ble, and even hint­ed that some of our major news­pa­pers, the Jour­nal per­haps includ­ed, may not ulti­mate­ly be long for the world. The prob­lem, as he describes it, is twofold: First, read­ers and adver­tis­ers con­tin­ue to move from print to the inter­net, a medi­um that old school papers can’t mon­e­tize very well. Sec­ond — and this is the crux of his argu­ment — he sees the major papers also suf­fer­ing because they face com­pe­ti­tion from more overt­ly politi­cized media play­ers, such as Fox, Drudge and var­i­ous blogs that don’t adhere to tra­di­tion­al stan­dards of jour­nal­ism. While The Wall Street Jour­nal strives to be “fair and bal­anced,” Fox News (rather iron­i­cal­ly) and many right and left-wing blogs read­i­ly embrace bias and man­age to cap­i­tal­ize on it fair­ly well. This leaves the mid­dle of the road media in trou­ble.

Now, there is sure­ly some mer­it to this argu­ment. But it real­ly does­n’t seem to get to the root of the prob­lem. Wes­sel paints the WSJ’s woes as being essen­tial­ly polit­i­cal when they real­ly are not. It’s more about busi­ness and cul­ture than any­thing else. When the inter­net took off in the late 90s, we heard about how it low­ered bar­ri­ers to entry and allowed play­ers with lit­tle cap­i­tal to get online and com­pete. Now, ten years lat­er, we’re see­ing the results. Estab­lished con­tent play­ers have found them­selves com­pet­ing with an infi­nite num­ber of spe­cial­ized con­tent providers, some of which are damn good, and some not. (Per­haps we can lump the unabashed­ly polit­i­cal blogs in the lat­ter group.) Put sim­ply, the infor­ma­tion world is being splin­tered much like the tele­vi­sion world was with the advent of cable, except even more so, and this leaves read­ers with many viable choic­es. For bet­ter or worse, the gen­er­al­ist press seems almost doomed to give way to spe­cial­ized blogs and web sites that read­ers can aggre­gate into an organ­ic whole with the help of book­marks and new­fan­gled “feed read­ers.” (See, for exam­ple, Google Read­er, MyYa­hoo, or Blog­lines.) This prob­a­bly includes The Wall Street Jour­nal. And would David Wes­sel be sur­prised to see Amer­i­ca’s lead­ing finan­cial paper even­tu­al­ly sup­plant­ed by a chang­ing con­stel­la­tion of alter­na­tives? Prob­a­bly not. You can already hear the doubt in his voice … and very faint­ly the suck­ing sound in the halls of Dow Jones.

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